The following speech was made in today’s parliamentary debate on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill by the Conservative MP for Aldershot, Sir Gerald Howarth, an Anglican.
I oppose the Bill for five key reasons. First, I believe it is simply wrong in principle. To overturn centuries of established custom requires a proper explanation beyond mouthing the equality mantra. What shaft of wisdom has suddenly alighted on my right hon. Friends that was denied their distinguished forebears? How come they think that they know better than the established Church? For the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary today to pray in aid the argument that marriage “has evolved over time” is simply disingenuous. As the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) has pointed out, nothing like this has been proposed in Parliament ever before—this is a massive change.
This Bill deeply affects the core fabric of our society through the challenge it poses to the whole institution of marriage. Reference has been made to Spain, which introduced similar legislation in 2005 and where the overall marriage rate has fallen by 20%. Since all research shows that children raised in married households with a mother and father tend to fare better than those who are not, the Government threaten to damage the life chances of the nation’s children.
Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and others have pointed out, neither the Prime Minister nor any other party leader has a mandate, because this was not in any party’s manifesto, let alone in the coalition agreement.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has insisted on sticking to the 0.7% target for overseas aid on the grounds that he gave a commitment in 2009, and I respect him for that. He has stuck to that commitment, but not to the commitment to introduce tax breaks for married couples, and he has now invented a policy that he specifically ruled out at the last general election.
Thirdly, if there is no mandate, where is the demand for this change? A poll in yesterday’s Daily Mail—okay, it was the Daily Mail, but still—found that only one in 14, or 7%, of those questioned thought that this should be a priority. Another poll found that more than 60% of the black and minority ethnic communities—the very people that the Conservative party is apparently out to woo—are hostile to it.
Fourthly, there is already provision for civil partnerships, which provides most of the benefits of marriage to those in the gay community. Those of us who had reservations when the legislation on civil partnerships was introduced were reassured that it should not be seen as the forerunner of today’s Bill. Indeed, the noble Lord Filkin said in another place in 2004:
“I want to put our position very clearly. This is a new legal status that gives rights and responsibilities to people in same-sex committed relationships… We do not see it as analogous to marriage. We do not see it as a drift towards gay marriage.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2004; Vol. 661, c. GC179.]
Clearly, those behind today’s proposal feel no sense of obligation arising from the clear assurances that were given 10 years ago. How can we be sure that this will be the end of the process and that there will not be more?
Fifthly—this point was alluded to by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)—what about the consequences? On education, the Department for Education states grandly: “No teacher will be required to promote or endorse views which go against their beliefs.”
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, who is doing a gallant job in difficult circumstances, said on the “Today” programme on 25 January that there would be “no requirement” on teachers to promote same-sex marriage. However, she added ominously that “obviously we wouldn’t expect teachers to be offensive or discriminate in any way about anything.”
What guidance does that give to teachers in our country who have a profound objection to promoting anything other than traditional marriage? John Bowers QC, who defeated the Government over prisoner rights, has pointed out that there is no protection.
I am not a Tory moderniser, for I believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. I shall not surrender my principles. I believe that this Bill is wrong and that the consultation process was a complete sham. The Bill is opposed by the established Church and has caused deep and needless divisions within the Conservative party. There is no mandate for it and it has huge potential consequences, not least the prospect of endless legal challenge. The nation faces much more serious challenges that the Government need to address. I therefore hope and pray that this measure will be rejected, if not in this place, then in the other place.